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College Admissions Scandal Troubles Disadvantaged Students04:34
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Harvard junior José Larios (center) during a workout with the boxing club. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Harvard junior José Larios (center) during a workout with the boxing club. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

For young people battling long odds of getting to and through college, the allegations that wealthy parents cheated and lied in order to get their kids in to elite universities are still rankling — and raising fundamental questions of fairness.

Just a few years ago, José Larios was one of those students. Born in Jamaica, Queens, the son of Honduran immigrants, he became the first student from his high school to get into Harvard in 2016.

By now a junior studying education, Larios doesn't have many illusions about how the admissions system works.

"Wealth is extremely influential in college access," Larios said. "Like, if you come from a well-off family in, say, Beverly Hills, odds are you've heard of college. You've heard of the SAT, the ACT. Your child, from a very young age, has that as an expectation. That is huge."

The news of the admissions scandal caught Larios by surprise for that very reason. Famous families resorting to bribes and fraud — it felt like overkill.

"How somebody could be extremely advantaged already, and then decide, 'Let me actually break the law — break the system more than it already is — and commit fraud' — that is shocking to me," Larios said.

Walking across campus, Larios explained that he didn't have those same advantages growing up in Queens. He remembered having to explain his SAT prep books to his parents. And so he sought out help elsewhere, using his student MetroCard to seek out tutors and nonprofit organizations like Let's Get Ready and the College Access Leadership Institute at NYU.

They taught him some of the hard truths about higher education, like that only about 10 percent of low-income, first-generation students graduate from college within six years.

But Larios, a former wrestler and captain of Harvard's boxing club, said he's always loved to fight. He's gotten to college, and to junior year, through hard work, talent and a little luck. But he also gives a lot of credit to those programs designed to expand college access for people like him.

Those programs don't just demystify financial aid or offer test prep. They give students from low-income backgrounds a place to strategize, celebrate and vent.

And now, students in those programs are raising questions of fairness raised by last week's indictments.

Kathrine Mott — the CEO of Let's Get Ready, which offers free college counseling and SAT prep to low-income students in the Northeast — said candor about college admissions is a frustrating task for organizations like hers. Students at Let's Get Ready are "overwhelmingly ... talented, ambitious, hungry to be successful," Mott said. "But they don’t have access to all of the resources."

Last week's revelations, Mott said, give us an accidental "opportunity" to discuss the ways in which college admissions remains a flawed meritocracy — though, she added, resources like Let's Get Ready can help correct for some of the inequity.

There are public versions of college-prep programs — including GEAR UP, a national initiative designed to put low-income students on track to enter college. At East Boston High School, GEAR UP's outgoing seniors have their own questions about the scandal and its meaning.

"...To see that [the accused] just reaped the benefits, without putting in that work, I was like, 'Wow. That's basically telling us to screw off.'"

Zaira Garcia, senior at East Boston High School

The high school's students are mostly Latinx, and just over half come from low-income backgrounds. According to state data, a majority of East Boston High's class of 2017 weren't enrolled in college by the following March.

So the GEAR UP office, with its three full-time staff, is committed to helping students meet deadlines and find scholarships; many even return to the office during their freshman year of college.

One afternoon this week, GEAR UP senior Zaira Garcia noted how different her course has been from the one revealed in the charging documents put forward by U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling.

"There's a ton of work that [we] put into going to college," Garcia said. "And to see that [the accused] just reaped the benefits, without putting in that work, I was like, 'Wow. That's basically telling us to screw off.' "

Garcia, an athlete, is at Northeastern University with a generous scholarship. But her classmate, Naylene Rivera, wasn't so lucky. Rivera said she's a good student, also an athlete, and engaged in her school.

But one big problem still loomed: the SAT and the attendant stress.

Rivera remembered "just, like, staring at my test, thinking about how I'm not going to do well because I don't have enough time. I studied, but I'm forgetting everything in the moment."

"I just think it's not fair," she added.

Among six East Boston High School seniors at GEAR UP this week, the SAT — which has a documented racial and economic skew -- remained an unhappy memory. Most said that, despite their efforts to prepare, they ended up scared to take the high-stakes test and at least a little disappointed with their results.

A few East Boston High School seniors said they knew that the full arcs of their lives wouldn't be determined by high-school test scores or college acceptances. But they added that sometimes it can feel that way — especially coming from their backgrounds.

Richard Sanchez, a basketball player who didn't get into his dream program, said he felt his confidence "falling down" during parts of the process, especially testing. "We feel like this is our last chance ... our only hope to go somewhere," he said.

It's a paradox for young adults from public city schools. They may have more to gain than anyone from attending top-flight colleges, but those colleges still aren't set up to welcome them en masse.

Back at Harvard, Larios understands how Harvard — with its "Anglo-Saxon, high-wealth" mold — could change his own social and economic future: "I can absolutely see how this is a springboard. There are professional experiences straight out of college where they pay you six-figure salaries!"

But he said for now, he has other plans. He's hoping for a future in public policy, with an eye towards evening the odds of success for students like him.

This segment aired on March 21, 2019.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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